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6 Things Parents Can Do to Squash Sibling Rivalry

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When you had a second child, you probably figured that you were giving your first child a lifetime companion. But years down the road, your kids are constantly fighting and finding the need to compete with each other. What happened to the best friends you thought you’d be raising? According to clinical psychologist Jennifer Cassatly, they could be right under your nose.

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By Keren Perles

When you had a second child, you probably figured that you were giving your first child a lifetime companion. But years down the road, your kids are constantly fighting and finding the need to compete with each other. What happened to the best friends you thought you’d be raising? According to clinical psychologist Jennifer Cassatly, they could be right under your nose.

Know That It’s Normal

“It’s not fair!” and “You must love her more!” are common complaints, but they can still be hard for parents to hear. “From the time younger siblings are born, they’re looking up to their older siblings and mimicking sibling behaviors,” says Cassatly. Younger siblings compare their own privileges with those enjoyed by older siblings, and children in general try to excel in areas that their siblings have struggled in—all of that is completely normal.

Know That It’s Healthy

“Kids spend more time with their siblings than anyone else, including their parents, so some competition isn’t unhealthy,” Cassatly says. “Seeing what other children do and wanting to mimic them helps children to learn.” Competition makes for learning experiences that help kids build social skills, a team attitude, and resilience. Sure, it may seem like they’re exhibiting terrible sportsmanship, but with time, siblings understand when they’re getting carried away and when competition is just a fun form of bonding.

Be Honest With Yourself

Are your past sibling experiences coloring the way you see your children’s sibling rivalry? “One way to better understand your perception of your children's relationships is to sit down and reflect on your own experiences. Then think about how your children's experiences are similar and dissimilar.” If you’re not sure whether your childhood relationships are impacting the way you see your children’s interactions, ask for the objective opinions of those around you: your partner, a teacher, a child-care provider, or a family member.

Understand Where It Comes From

As a parent, it’s important to know what sibling rivalry stems from. Parents are often stricter with their first child than with subsequent children, so when your older child says, “That’s not fair! I wasn’t allowed to stay up that late when I was his age!” he might actually have a point. And when your younger child says, “You used to drag us to all of her volleyball games when I was little, but she never comes to mine,” she may not be exaggerating. That doesn’t mean you have to change the way that you parent now—when you have less time and fewer resources spread among your children—but it means that you can empathize with your children a bit more easily when they start to compare.

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Let Kids Express Their Emotions

Recognize that childhood is a time when social skills are not yet fully developed. “Kids are still learning how to control feelings, how to cope with their anger,” Cassatly says. So when your child comes over to you and starts venting about a sibling, refrain from offering excuses or pointing out that both children share the blame. Instead, show them that you understand how they’re feeling. Hear them out, and allow them to share their frustration, no matter who you think is “really” at fault.

Help Kids Work It Out

There is nothing more exhausting than playing referee between your kids. So instead of hearing both sides and passing judgment, Cassatly suggests letting them work it out independently. If they don’t know where to start, try saying, “You could take turns with the toy, or you could play with it together. Which do you think would work better?” When children get old enough to resolve their problems among themselves, you can tell them that they need to work out a solution and let you know what they’ve decided.

Keep emotion out of the picture when it comes to resolving fights. Instead, focus on the positive. “Remind kids about the importance of siblings sticking together,” Cassatly says, “and realize that they do ultimately care about each other. Praise them when they do something nice to each other, when they act mature, or when they look out for each other.” In time, you’ll see your children working out their differences, helping each other out, and eventually growing closer.

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